“Bestiary” by Donika Kelly: From Fear to Love

Some of you might remember the poetry books recently featured on this blog – Life in Suspension/La Vie Suspendue by Hélène Cardona, Beyond Elsewhere by Gabriel Arnou-Laujeac and The Mind by John FitzGerald.

Although I have had quite a few favourite poems since my school days (example, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “Mirror” by Sylvia Plath) and have scribbled some silly ones myself now and then, I haven’t been a regular reader of this form of expression. I have been reluctant to sit with poetry because I have known that it hardly has a market. I haven’t seen other people with it – and I’ll be honest – this has made me question its usefulness.

Bestiary: Poems by Donika Kelly (2016, Graywolf Press)

All that being said, a careful engagement with the books mentioned above has made me feel that poetry is a channel of communication that needs to be more energetically promoted, for it has the ability to reveal truths and articulate experiences that straight and plain prose may not. Cannot.

I realised this fact a few days ago particularly when I encountered a work called Bestiary (2016) by American poet and scholar Donika Kelly (@officialdonika). Kelly holds an MFA from the University of Texas at Austin and received her Ph.D. in English from Vanderbilt University, specialising in American literature and film studies. She is Assistant Professor of creative writing at St. Bonaventure University, NY. 

Bestiary, Kelly’s debut collection published by Graywolf Press, was longlisted for the National Book Award and won the Cave Canem Poetry Prize – the Cave Canem Foundation was established in Brooklyn in 1996 by poets Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady to “remedy the under-representation and isolation of African American poets in Master of Fine Arts (MFA) programs and writing workshops across the United States.”

Firstly, what is a “bestiary”? It is a compendium of beasts. Bestiaries emerged in the ancient world and were popular in Europe during the Middle Ages, with animals being depicted on manuscripts to impart moral instruction to the faithful. The practice was grounded in the idea of the natural world being a creation of God, and therefore, a means of his speech.


Adam naming the animals in a page from a bestiary in Aberdeen, Scotland, Wikipedia [Public Domain]

Donika Kelly’s Bestiary is rich and multi-layered. It is surely a catalogue of creatures – real and familiar (whale, ostrich, swallow), mythical and strange (werewolf, centaur, pegasus). The book is also a travelogue, a tale of migration across America, going from “Out West” to “Back East”. Then there are accounts of sexual abuse, of violence and fear, of therapy, finally love. Throughout the volume, there is an awareness of the monstrous – the baser instincts of humanity. Yet Kelly’s immersion in legend gives the book an air of magic and wonder, ultimately creating a redemptive, hopeful vision of life and existence. Bestiary is a glittering journey of survival and self-discovery.

Two poems:

Fourth Grade Autobiography

We live in Los Angeles, California. We have a front yard and a backyard. My favorite things are cartwheels, salted plums, and playing catch with my dad. I squeeze the grass and dirt between my fingers. Eat my tongue white. he launches every ball into orbit. Every ball drops like an anvil, heavy and straight into my hands. I am afraid of riots and falling and the dark. The sunset of flames ringing our block, groceries and Asian-owned storefronts. No one to catch me. Midnight walks from his room to mine. I believe in the devil…


Love Poem: Chimera

I thought myself lion and serpent. Thought myself body enough for two, for we. Found comfort in never being lonely. What burst from my back, from my bones, what lived along the ridge from crown to crown, from mane to forked tongue beneath the skin. What clamor we made in the birthing. What hiss and rumble at the splitting, at the horns and beard, at the glottal bleat. What bridges our back.What strong neck, what bright eye. What menagerie are we. What we’ve made of ourselves.

Learn more about Donika Kelly in this interview on the LA Review of Books.